Adam Kirsch, an acclaimed poet and literary critic, has reignited the debate about human exceptionalism and whether humans are still necessary in light of the emergence of innovations like ChatGPT and other forms of artificial intelligence.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Kirsch discusses the divide between those who believe that humans should be replaced by technology and those who believe that technology should be used to enhance humanity and solve all of its problems.
He also speculates about whether technology has become more important and more powerful than nature, and whether or not human self-extinction might be the ultimate form of idealism.
Kirsch points out that this debate has gained traction in recent years, with the expanding role of AI and technology now giving it more fuel. He talks about the emergence of “bioPolitics,” in which the very future of human life is seen as part of our political discourse. Which leads us to the ultimate question: Would getting rid of ourselves be the most “human” thing to do?
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(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. There is fear that AI may make humans, or at least much of what they do, unnecessary, yet genetic engineering may allow us to live forever. Simultaneously, we see evidence each and every day that it is humans that are putting life on our planet, and our ecosystem in jeopardy, all of which begs the dystopian question, are humans in their current form still necessary? Certainly, the idea of human exceptionalism exists within all of us.
But what if we’re really just another link in the evolutionary chain, one that has both written its own death warrant, but at the same time, created the technology to carry on our superpowers without us? Science fiction? Maybe. But these ideas are actually shared by a great many people. And it may not be that far off before they find their way into our mainstream debate. For the moment, we can find them in the work of my guest, Adam Kirsch. Adam is an acclaimed poet, and literary critic. He’s the author of three collections of poems and several books of criticism and biography, including The Global Novel. His newest work recently, excerpted in The Atlantic, is The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us.
Adam Kirsch, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Adam: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Jeff: Well, it is great to have you here. One of the things that’s so interesting and thinking about this, is that it is perhaps only humans that have this ability for self-loathing to even think about the extinction of our own species. Talk about that.
Adam: Well, that’s definitely true. One of the things this book is about is how we as humans think about our place in nature. And it’s obviously always been the case that humans are an exception in nature, but we’ve thought about that exception in different ways, whether we’re the creature of God, because we have a soul, that puts us in a different category from everything else that we know in existence, or whether we evolved through natural processes to develop an intelligence that helps us understand ourselves. These are all ways that humanity has tried to think about why it’s not like everything else on Earth, even animals that are close to us.
What I’m writing about in this book, is the rise of a new way of thinking, which says that the human exception is actually a negative one, that we are unusually destructive, or that, at least in our current form, we can’t guarantee our future or the future of the planet. And so we need to either get rid of ourselves or take on some sort of a different existence through the aid of technology.
Jeff: And yet the irony in that is, is this notion that it is this human quality that we have, that allows us to even speculate about the idea of eliminating ourselves.
Adam: That’s definitely true. One of the interesting things about what I call in the book, The Revolt Against Humanity, is that really it’s an expression of idealism, strange as it sounds. It’s an expression of the kinds of things that we think of as the best of humanity, our desire for justice, for progress and reason for kindness and for sparing suffering, all those things that we think of as humane qualities. For a number of people, both environmentalists and technological enthusiasts, those very human qualities are leading in the direction of transcending or abolishing humanity itself.
In other words, these people are saying that in order to become what we most want to be, or to fulfill the most human parts of ourselves, we have to get beyond the species, Homo sapiens.
Jeff: There does seem to be some kind of relationship, though, between the degree to which technology speeds up, and those people that feel that it is technology that really is driving our destruction of the planet. This relationship somehow relates to our ability to move forward with technology. Talk about that.
Adam: That’s certainly true. In the book I talk about two different groups of thinkers who in many ways are opposed. They’re the groups that I call the Anthropocene anti-humanists. Those are basically people who think that humanity has become a plague on the earth, and has violated nature, and needs to shrink or eliminate its footprint in order to restore nature. And then on the other hand, you have people who call themselves trans-humanists, who look forward to a future in which, thanks to technology, we can transcend things like mortality, or even being limited to a single human body, and that our future is full of these great possibilities that we can barely even conceive of right now.
What those two groups have in common is that they recognize we’re living in a unique technological moment. It’s sometimes hard to realize, because things happen in our lives gradually, and we get used to one change, and we get used to another change. But if you look at the sweep of human history in the last 200 years, technology has taken exponential leaps and continues to do so. So, up until about the year 1800, the technologies that people used were essentially the same as they had since the ancient world. They sailed in ships with sails, they went by horseback or vehicles drawn by horses.
Then with the industrial revolution, we started to extract more energy from the earth and put it to more advanced uses. We can send messages, we can fly, we can go to the moon and outer space, we understand our DNA. All of these things are happening at such a rapid clip, that for a lot of people who are more on the more visionary side, they see that if things continue that way, we will soon reach a point where life will be transformed and become unrecognizable.
Jeff: How much of the attitude of those that think that maybe humans are unnecessary, comes from a fear of technology?
Adam: There are definitely people, and I talked about a number of them in my book, who feel that technology is leading humanity in the wrong direction. That they dread a future which is so completely technological, that we’re cut off from nature, that there’ll be no more experience, directly of nature, but only mediated through our own technology. But on a deeper level, I think there are people who believe that technology is part of human nature. In other words, since the very beginning, as far back as we can see, humans have used tools of various times to amplify their power. And that is often been at the expense of nature, at the expense of other beings of plants and animals, of the climate, even things like like rivers and oceans. And there are people who point out that even if you go back into the fossil record, you see that humans were exterminating whole species 10,000 years ago, just by using fire and animal herding.
So the idea that the more humanity increases in power, the worse it is for everything else on Earth, can go back to the very beginning of the human story. And when you start thinking about it that way, our current situation isn’t an exception. It’s more like it’s, we’ve finally found a way to express this part of ourselves, that’s always been with us, which is the desire to dominate nature, and to replace it really, so that what matters most in the future of the planet is not nature, but human desire’s natural.
Jeff: Why do you think that it has taken so long for this debate to fully blossom, for this idea of humanity versus nature, to really be at the stage it is now where it can be talked about in the way you’re exploring in the book, in the way we’re talking about it?
Adam: Well, as I say in the book, the idea that humanity is out of tune with nature is not that new of an idea. It’s been around for a couple hundred years. Really, when the Industrial Revolution began, people started to say, “We’re not living in harmony with nature, we’re disrupting the way that we were meant to live.” And until I think, fairly recently, the environmentalists’ movements, environmentalists’ ideas said we should go back to nature, we should allow nature to regulate our lives better.
What’s new about the people that I discuss in this book, the people I call anti-humanists, is that they no longer think that nature is going to be able to save us. They think that we’ve reached a point that, as I said earlier, humanity has replaced nature. That’s the idea that’s often referred to in the term Anthropocene, which says that we’ve entered a new era of the Earth’s history, where it’s our own actions that determine the course of nature rather than vice versa. And if that’s the case, then a more radical kind of solution is called for, we can’t just say, “Let’s be in harmony with nature, because we’ve actually replaced nature and supplanted it.” The only way to solve that problem might be for us to eliminate ourselves completely. And that’s what some of the more radical thinkers I talked about in the book actually advocate.
Jeff: Right. And it’s interesting that they start from this premise that this is not the way we were, “Meant to live,” which begs the question of, meant by who?
Adam: Right. Well, there’s a long tradition of social critique, even political critique, saying that we’ve gotten away from our origins, we are originally meant to live in small groups, according to nature. And through the power of our reason, we’ve created so many tools, institutions, that we’ve gotten far away from where we belong, really. That goes back to Rousseau in the 18th century. The question is whether that can actually be reversed in any meaningful way. And as our toll on the planet increases, and as environmental problems become more and more urgent and people are more concerned about them, I think that a lot of people are moving into the camp of saying, we can’t expect that we will solve these problems, that we will return to nature. That maybe there’s something simply irreconcilable about the two.
Jeff: This dystopian idea that humans can be eliminated, in so many ways, it has been part of science fiction for a long time, and you talk about that as well.
Adam: Yes. In fact, a lot of the ideas that I think are now being taken seriously in places like universities, think tanks, Silicon Valley, originally, you could find them in science fiction maybe 70 years ago in writers like Isaac Ivanov who talked about, for instance, the question of will we be able to invent an artificial intelligence that will take over the world from us? He was writing about that in iRobot already in the 1940s. Now I think we have reached a point where a lot of serious people think that technology has caught up with that imagination. Things that once seemed impossible, fantastic, eventually become reality, whether that’s flying or going to the bottom of the ocean or visiting the moon. People used to fantasize about those things and now we can actually do them.
The next step is, will we be able to, for example, upload our minds onto computers, or create minds that have been on computers from the beginning and that may be more capable than our own and understand things better than we do. There’s one figure I quote in the book, is a poll of computer scientists in which they were asked, do you think there will be what’s called artificial general intelligence that is an actual mind rather than just a program designed to solve a particular task? Do you think that that will exist by the year 2100? Almost all of them said that they think it will exist. In other words, this is something that people who are experts believe is about to happen.
Jeff: Talk about this idea of transhumanism, and the belief that in fact it is technology that will actually change humans in a way that solves all these problems.
Adam: Well, the transhumanists who tend to be people who are very enthusiastic about technology and are sometimes funded by tech billionaires, they agree with the anti-humanists on one thing, which is that we’ve sort of reached an impossible situation that we can’t get out of on our own. One of the images that I talked about in the book is this idea of a precipice that humanity has been climbing up a mountain. We’ve reached a precipice that we can’t get past. If you’re an anti-humanist, you might think that we should turn around and go back and undo some of the technological progress that has got us here. The transhumanists say the only way out is forward, and it’s true that human beings won’t be able to get past this precipice, but something that replaces us in the future will be able to.
There are different varieties of transhumanist thought. They look forward to different kinds of futures, but they think about things like, for example, genetic engineering and using nanorobots to prevent aging, or to cure all diseases, or to vastly expand the abilities of our brains so that we can think and feel and perceive things that we can’t even imagine today. Or, as I said, that we will be able to invent minds that will be more capable than ours, and will be able to solve problems that we can’t currently imagine solving. For instance, deep space travel, which humanity will never be able to do just because of the way our biology is constituted, maybe an artificial form of life will be able to do that.
Jeff: It’s interesting, you talk about anti-humanism and how many people have really come to believe this, that it may not be a mainstream idea at this point, but certainly there are a lot more people than we think that believe this.
Adam: Well, one of the things that I’m interested in is I’m looking at some people who have made these arguments explicit on the extremes. Most of the people that I write about would be considered fringe thinkers. I think that you can see evidence that these ideas that start on the fringe don’t stay on the fringe. They start to work their way into mainstream thought and discourse. I think if you look, for example, at attitudes among younger people about the future, they’re much more concerned about the future of humanity than older people are. They think things like maybe it’s not morally right to have children, or at least maybe not more than one child. They think that the future is going to be much worse than the present or the past because environmental catastrophe will change the way we live. Those attitudes are actually quite prevalent, especially among younger people. I think that as those people grow up and start to take over institutions, it will really change the way politics, government, society, and culture work.
Jeff: One of the things that hasn’t been part of this conversation is economics and the way that that plays into these various points of view. Talk a little about that.
Adam: Right. Well, the system that we have now and which has brought great prosperity to billions of people, and enabled a higher standard of living than our ancestors could have dreamed of, is based on economic growth. That we’re constantly trying to grow the economy, grow the population, make use of more resources in more advanced ways. That has driven the basic assumption that all governments, all economists, all politics agree on is that growth is good. What some of these anti-human thinkers might be able to do is change the conversation to think about what if growth was a bad thing? What if instead of having more people, we want to have less people? Which is, by the way, something that demographics say is already probably going to start happening in the next generation or two as birth rates fall. It’s expected that the world population will peak in about 2050 and then start to fall.
For example, by the year 2100, China is expected to have about half as many people as it has today simply because of falling birth rates. If we start to think about growth as a problem rather than a solution, it can really change the way governments and society think about all kinds of things. From population growth, to technology, to job creation, all those things could represent a real economic revolution.
Jeff: There is a sense, I suppose, that some of these ideas, while they’re not fully fleshed out and they’re not even clearly articulated, are somehow below the surface in our political debate today. That there are elements of these notions that have somehow filtered into our debates today.
Adam: Yes, definitely. I think that there are definitely fault lines that you can already see in our society that mirror the ones that I talk about in the book, and that they have the potential to take on these new forms. One thing that I talk about is, you saw during the COVID pandemic, there’s a really deep division between people who trust scientific authority and people who don’t trust it. That often overlaps with religious beliefs and even economic status. You could easily imagine a situation where, for example, the scientific consensus becomes we should have fewer or no children for the sake of sparing the future, and how that would create enormous backlash among people who don’t trust that guidance or believe for religious or other reasons that it’s good to have more children, it’s good to increase the population. Those kinds of issues, I think, have the potential to become right at the center of politics in the future generations. They’re the things that are sometimes referred to as biopolitics, when the future of life itself becomes the subject matter of politics.
Jeff: There’s also the concern that the anti-humanist attitude, to the extent that it continues to grow or play any part at all in our politics, holds back technological growth, and that things that might be possible in the future are held back by fear of how these groups will react.
Adam: There are definitely technologies that people think about with a lot of apprehension. Artificial intelligence is one, genetic engineering is one. For example, I mentioned in the book that there was a Chinese scientist a few years ago who claimed to have genetically engineered human embryos as part of researching immunity to AIDS. He was completely condemned and rebuked both at home and abroad. Even scientists were not ready to take that step. However, I think that the tools of genetic engineering are advancing at such a rate that it’s widely realized that we could do much more advanced genetic engineering on humans than we currently do.
The question is, will there eventually come a moment when people will say, if we can get rid of a gene for a disease, shouldn’t we make that standard? Shouldn’t that be something that we would want to do for our children in embryo if we can, to make them immune to Alzheimer’s disease or to cancer? At a certain point, those issues are going to become impossible to avoid. They are the kind of thing, like a lot of the things I talk about in the book, that seem like they’re not on the agenda today, but I think probably will be in the agenda 20 years from now.
Adam: One of the things that’s different from the past is the speed at which these changes are taking place today. Historically, it might be possible to look at the way society was advancing, the way technology was advancing, and be able to have the conversation in real-time as those advances were taking place. It seems today, because technology is moving so fast, that it’s hard for the debate to keep up, and that that’s part of the problem as well.
Jeff: Definitely. I think that part of this great acceleration of technology that we’ve been talking about is that we’re constantly able to do things that we don’t know what to do with. One of maybe the biggest examples of that is atomic energy, where we discovered how to use atomic weapons at a time when we are still not able to abolish war or to guarantee that those weapons won’t be used to destroy humanity. So the idea that we have more power than we know what to do with, or more power than wisdom, is something that humanity has lived with for a pretty long time now. There are people who think in the context of artificial intelligence, for example, that it’s possible that an independent mind, a truly conscious artificial mind could be programmed at any time. Someone might be doing it right now, someone might have already done it, or might do it without realizing that they’ve done it. And that we are, instead of being able to plan the future and decide what to do in advance, we’re constantly reacting to new developments. And of course, people have different ideas and different interests. Some people want to encourage technologies that others want to resist. It’s impossible to get everyone to tow the same line most of the time.
So I think the record of the passage suggests that the future will continue that way, and will continue to meet these new technological challenges, whether we’re ready for them or not.
Adam: I suppose one of the other questions is where that wisdom about all of this comes from. It’s not necessarily going to come from the technologists or even from the extremists on both ends that you talked about before, but somehow it has to grow out of the arts of public intellectualism. Talk about where you think that wisdom comes from.
Jeff: Well, I think that for the people that I’m talking about, they’re very skeptical that wisdom can control technology, one way or the other. Anti-humanists and radical environmentalists see technology as something that is essentially destructive and out of our control, like a source storage apprentice. And they can point to the fact that we continue to announce targets for keeping pollution to a certain level, limiting climate change to a certain level. And those targets are never met. They’re continually, we just blow past them as a species because there is no way to hold back human desires and appetites for the things that cause us to use energy, that cause us to produce more carbon emissions.
On the other hand, transhumanists would say that any kind of moralizing attempt to say technology should stop here, we can go this far and no further, is doomed to fail because it’s human nature to want to know, to want to progress and invent, invent new things. So you can’t say, for example, we will never engage in genetic engineering, because at a certain point, we will want to do that. People will see that as a good thing rather than a bad thing. So I think that technology, or the desire to progress technologically, might be something that’s so powerful that it can’t be guided by any kind of humanistic wisdom. It’s more like the humanities are trying to catch up with the situations that science and technology present us with.
Adam: I guess that’s the battle between science and technology and human nature’s desire to know, on the one hand, versus the old cliche that nature bats last.
Jeff: Right. And I think that there are people who would say, we have to set boundaries and enforce limits on what we want to know and what we can do. That idea is also a very old one that goes back to– In the Renaissance, there was the myth of Faust who traded his soul for knowledge. And that became a symbol of modern humanity, that we’ve given something precious away in order to have more knowledge and more power.
However, I think the record suggests that that’s a bargain that most people like and will continue to make. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which that stops a true disaster. And that’s what a lot of the thinkers that I talk about in the book are looking forward to, is when that disaster happens, what will be left over? Will humanity be able to project itself forward into the future through some sort of successor species? Or will it be as they wiped off the face of the earth and maybe for the good of everything else?
Adam: And what does that disaster look like to some of the people you talk to?
Jeff: Well, there are people who call for humanity to do things like stop reproducing, commit suicide as a species or even individually. Those kinds of things are obviously quite provocative and hard to take fully seriously because it’s simply against human nature to destroy ourselves in that way. So, people who say things like that, I think are trying to make a point more than expecting them to be actually carried out.
But I think that there are a lot of people in increasingly mainstream people who believe that our environmental course is headed towards real destruction, maybe even extermination of the species through things like global warming, depletion of resources, making large parts of the earth uninhabitable because of the temperature, which will lead to mass migrations and wars. And so there are people who will envision a scenario where humanity will either disappear, or at least our industrial civilization will be unsustainable and will regress to a much lower population level and a lower level of technology.
Adam: And it’s interesting, though, that those people never believe the technology can be part of the solution, it seems.
Jeff: Well, the people that I write about in the book are pessimistic other than that, or at least some of them are. I think that mainstream environmentalists often do look to technology to solve those problems. They look to green energy, clean energy, and there are definitely people who say the only way that we can solve these problems is to find ways to meet our need for energy without creating pollution.
So recently there’s been news about atomic fusion, which has long been one of the clean energy ideas that people hope will pan out as a way of creating large amounts of energy without any waste. We’re not anywhere near there yet, but little steps keep being made. So the happy ending scenario would be that we learn to solve these problems, and certainly, that’s what I hope will happen. But the people that I’m writing about in this book, The Revolt Against Humanity, tend to not believe that that solution is going to pan out.
Adam: They don’t believe it because they don’t believe in the technology or because they don’t want to believe it, because there’s an inherent bias against it?
Jeff: It’s often hard to tell. With all these prophecies, all prophecies about what’s going to happen in the next 50 years, they are prophecies. It’s impossible to know for sure what the next technology will be, what the future will hold. Usually, when people make predictions about the future, they turn out to be wrong, in one way or another. So it’s always hard to say if someone’s prophecy about the future is based on some sort of evidence and reason, or whether it’s an expression of more deeply held beliefs and intuitions.
And I think there are certain people I write about in the book who say quite openly, we don’t want to live in a technological world, we don’t want to live in a world where in the future everything is even more technologized than is today. We would prefer to live in a world where we can bypass technology and really live in nature in a way that is no longer possible today.
Adam: What surprised you the most in talking to all these people for the revolt against humanity? And were your views changed in any way in the process?
Jeff: My views have changed slightly in the direction of resignation. I think I’m not a scientist. As you said at the beginning, I’m a writer. I’m a poet and a literary critic, and I am a humanities person. And so a lot of the scenarios that I talk about in this book seem alien and undesirable to me as past the future, and I would not want to be a transhumanist, for example.
But the more I read about it, the more I have come to think that the objections of people like me to such a future or to progress have not ever been effective in the past, and are not going to be effective in the future. But what we really need to do is think about what’s actually going to happen rather than what we might prefer to happen.
Adam: Adam Kirsch, his recent book is Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining A Future Without Us. Adam, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on The WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Jeff: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Adam: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on The WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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